The Year in the Jungle That Changed My Life

When I was 19, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I moved to the jungles of Indonesia.

If you know me now, that may sound like the course my life was always going to take. Let me assure you: it was anything but an inevitable decision at the time.

My mate, whose parents were working for an NGO there, had been bugging me endlessly to visit, and I was more than content to ignore him. I felt no particular draw towards other cultures and certainly no interest in learning another language. Like a hobbit, I had everything I needed in my little shire and had no reason to leave.

“This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

But then God spoke, and in a Jonah moment, I knew I could ignore him no longer. And rather than a visit, I felt compelled to commit to at least a year and see where it would go.

Over a decade later and I’ve just returned from my tenth trip to this remote region. I’ve now spent around two and a half years of my life in a place that has captured my heart and keeps drawing me back.

If you’re wondering what to do with your gap year; are at a crossroads in life; or are otherwise experiencing your own Jonah wake-up call, let me share with you why this was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

I’ve always loved camping, but I didn’t know adventure until I lived on this tangle of tropical islands.

I could tell you stories of spear fishing and jumping down waterfalls, of high-speed midnight rides on a car roof (don’t tell Mum), of climbing one of the world’s most active volcanoes (four times), and of getting lost in the jungle for days—and fortunately, making it out alive.

If none of that excites you, I could tell you about the families who’ve hosted me in their dirt-floored, bamboo-thatched homes; stories of suffering and hope that I never imagined I’d hear first hand; and the incredible friends, young and old, that I now have a lifelong bond with.

Culture and Language

I recently heard it said that until you understand a second language, you don’t understand your own. I couldn’t agree more. And I’d say the same about culture.

On return from my first year in Indonesia, I had fresh eyes—an outsider’s view—on things in my own culture that I’d grown up taking for granted. I can’t quantify just how life-changing that has been for me.

In the best of ways, I now question the status-quo I see all around me, and more importantly, the mediocrity inside my own head.

And there’s another link between culture and language worth mentioning. Language embodies culture. When you learn one, you learn the other. Through language, you don’t just learn to speak like your hosts, but to share their values and their outlook on life so that it shapes your own.

Growth and Perspective

When I landed back in Australia, after spending some time with a friend, she commented that I went to Indonesia a boy and came back a man. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I certainly grew a lot that year—not least in my perspective on the world.

Whether it was washing my own clothes each day with a scrubbing brush, tasting the most unusual cuisine from bat to snake to sago grub, or seeing the unparalleled joy of children in the face of abject poverty—there is something about living on the outskirts of civilisation that can only alter your view of almost everything.

I can no longer approach finances like I used to. Or my fears, or my friendships, or my faith. Years later and I’m still unpacking how my interactions with the amazing people of Indonesia have shaped me.

Future Possibilities

Too many people, even those still finishing high school, have been persuaded to focus far too much on CVs and career paths, salaries and ambition. Too few are concerned about the kind of person they’re becoming.

As you make these big decisions about your future, what grid are you using? If it’s comfort, status or security, let me challenge you beyond goals like these that won’t satisfy, and that aren’t particularly attainable anyway.

Let me challenge you away from the path of least resistance and towards the path of adventure, obedience and self-sacrifice—whatever that might look like for you.

Even if it looks like a year in the jungle.

~

The organisation I serve with in Indonesia welcomes with open arms western visitors who are willing to serve and get behind their vision of physical, emotional and spiritual restoration for the poor and marginalised.

They have a particular need right now for native English speakers to teach in the school (Reception to Year 8), qualified or otherwise. Please get in touch with me if you’d like to find out more.

How Hinduism Points to Jesus

Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West. But it goes beyond vegan food, henna and hippy culture. We’re all one with God; there’s a divine spark within each of us; I’ll find my own path—all of these Hindu ideas have gone global.

Hinduism inspired brilliant movies like Inception, Avatar and Interstellar. And many big-name celebrities have famously converted to the faith, including Julia Roberts, Russel Brand and George Harrison of The Beetles.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Hinduism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

The Heart of Hinduism

Hinduism has no founder: there’s no historical figure called Hindu. That’s just a British word for the colourful rituals and beliefs of the Indian subcontinent. Even today, most Hindus don’t know that word—they just know they follow the eternal religion.

Eternal is a stretch, but it’s definitely ancient. Hinduism predates Moses, beginning around 2000BC—making it the oldest religion in the world. It’s not a neat, easily understood faith. It has no organised hierarchy, no creeds, and no central holy place. It sort of just is.

“Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West.”

At the centre of this spectacular web of beliefs and practices is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force. To understand what this even means, we need to take a journey through the deep traditions that have shaped Hindu belief.


THE VEDAS (2000BC—500BC)

First are the Vedas. These hymns, curses and chants were brought to India by Persian nomads, explaining how to communicate with a vast array of gods through the use of drugs, and how to appease these gods with sacrifices.


THE UPANISHADS (1000BC—300BC)

Second are the Upanishads. Indian gurus and holy men reflected deeply on the Vedas and developed a whole worldview out of them, teaching these important ideas:

Brahman / Behind everything in the universe is a life force called Brahman. Brahman isn’t a who but a what—it has no personality. And Brahman isn’t seperate from the world: it encompasses everything, including you and me. Like sparks from a flame, we all came from Brahman, and to Brahman we will all return.

“At the centre of Hinduism is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force.”

Illusion / You think you’re reading this blog, but actually you’re not. You, your device, and the entire universe is actually just a dream of Brahman. According to Hindu teaching, until you realise this, you’ll stay trapped in the illusion of this world.

Reincarnation / All of us, even plants, animals and insects, are caught on a carousel of being born, dying and being reborn again. Reincarnation isn’t fun to a Hindu—it means being spat back out into the illusion of this world; trapped once again in a false existence.

“In Hindu teaching, the entire universe is just a dream of Brahman.”

Karma / We think karma is doing good so good comes back to me. For Hindus, karma is vengeful—it’s the reason we’re trapped. The poor are suffering now because of their actions in a past life: it’s their fault. As such, I need to live a good life now so I can return as a king, not a cockroach.

Release / However, the end goal is actually to not come back at all. Instead, I’m aiming to experience final release from the futile cycle of life. Release isn’t a place; it’s a state of being where I no longer exist—where I’m absorbed back into Brahman, the ultimate reality.


THE SMRITI (500BC—AD300)

The third and final tradition is the Smriti. These epic Shakespeare-like dramas tell the stories of the gods, and teach two more ideas:

The Caste System / People are born into different castes or social orders based on their karma from past lives. Those at the top work in business and government, while the untouchables at the bottom fill India’s slums. Mahatma Gandhi fought the caste system, and today many Hindus reject it, but it remains deeply ingrained in Indian society.

The Way of Release / Release from reincarnation and a return to Brahman is possible, and it can happen in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Path of DutyPerforming good works that are fitting to your particular caste, and being faithful in giving offerings to the local gods.
  2. Path of DevotionChoosing one of Hinduism’s 330 million gods to love and worship with your whole life—the most popular being Vishnu and Shiva.
  3. Path of KnowledgeDenying comforts, chanting scriptures, and practicing mediation and yoga in order to achieve union with Brahman.

And that’s a brief summary of Hinduism. Today it’s the third largest religion in the world with over a billion followers. The vast majority of Hindus live in India.

Hinduism and Jesus

Hindu ideas challenge Christians, and in the best of ways. They rattle our safe little cage and make us question everything we thought we knew. Hinduism also reminds us that God is not just far off, but present everywhere; and many Hindus truly know the meaning of spiritual devotion.

But where does Jesus fit with Hinduism? It would be too easy to see him as just another guru or god among the millions. But this holy man is different. Jesus’ teachings are eternal, more ancient than the Vedas. In fact, they come directly from Brahman.

“Jesus came to show us what Brahman is like.”

According to Jesus, it’s true that Brahman is the life force present everywhere, giving unity to the world we see. But Jesus called Brahman a who, not a what. Brahman is actually personal, with a mind, emotions and the capacity for relationship.

This makes sense because we are personal. We use logic; we experience joy and sadness; and we relate to others. How could you or I, with all the beauty and wonder of personality, come from an impersonal force? Brahman must have a personality if we came from him.

“Brahman is a who, not a what.”

Jesus also taught about karma. He called it sin—actions from our past that have trapped us. But he didn’t teach the path of duty, devotion or knowledge, because they leave us uncertain; we can only know if they’ve worked after we die. Jesus taught a better way of release, one that we can know gives us release in this life.

Instead of us making our way back to Brahman, Jesus said, Brahman has come to us. Jesus wasn’t just another spark from the flame: he claimed to actually be Brahman, entering into our world, ending the illusion. Jesus came to show us what Brahman’s personality is like.

Jesus performed every good work and lived a perfect life, and this meant his karma was good. And when he died, he took all our karma upon himself, and he gave us his good karma in return. The moment we believe this and devote ourselves to Jesus, we experience final release.

“Jesus isn’t just another guru or god among the millions.”

When we die, we can be certain we’ll return to Brahman. Not like sparks to a flame. But like children to their father. We’re actually seperate beings from Brahman—and that’s good, because it means we can have a personal relationship with him. This is love. And this is true union with the ultimate life force.

We all need a god to worship and devote our lives to. Jesus is the only one who is truly worthy of this, because he’s not one god among many. He’s the one true God.

And this God loves and accepts us, no matter which caste we’re from.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

Sources

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 83-94.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 17-46.

How Buddhism Points to Jesus

Let’s be honest, it’s the world’s most fashionable religion. Buddhism has an exciting mystique about it, especially for us spiritually starved westerners.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream, along with Zen gardens and the Dalai Lama. Buddhist themes light up our cinemas, from The Matrix to Kung Fu Panda and every Star Wars film in history.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Buddhism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origins and Influence

The Buddha lived long before Christ. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, in the 5th or 6th century BC. A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world. Fearing this, his father kept him safe inside a palace.

But that would never last. One day Gautama ventured outside, and on his travels he encountered an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse—confronting him with the reality of human suffering.

He called this the wheel of suffering, and he made it his life’s mission to find an escape from it. At age 29, he abandoned his wife and son and gave up everything to live as a poor man. Following the Hindu tradition, he wandered the Ganges river to mediate, fast, and learn from gurus.

“A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world.”

Desperate to be free of suffering, Gautama sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he was enlightened. Six years after his search began, the moment arrived. He became the Buddha or enlightened one—and a new world faith was born.

The Buddha’s teaching career continued until his death at age 81, during which time huge crowds followed him. 2,500 years later, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion; the dominant faith in a dozen countries; and is practiced by half a billion people.

The Heart of Buddhism

Buddhism is complex and varied, drawing on Hindu ideas like karma and reincarnation, and mixing with many other beliefs as it spread through Asia. But in all its diversity today, it’s built on one simple idea: escape from suffering. The Buddha developed this in his Four Noble Truths.

1. The Existence of Suffering. To live is to suffer. Sadness, fear, worry and loss are all part of life. Even pleasure is fleeting. This too is a form of suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. We experience the pain of hunger, for example, only because we desire food; we experience grief and fear of death only because we desire life.

“Buddhism is built on one simple idea: escape from suffering.”

3. The End to Suffering. Suffering ends when desire ends. The end goal of Buddhism is nirvana—to end all desire by realising that we don’t really exist, so we can live in this world with complete detachment.

4. The Escape from Suffering. There is a way to be free. The Buddha had been a prince and a pauper, but neither experience dealt with suffering at its root. Under that tree, the Buddha found a Middle Way between these two extremes—also known as the Eightfold Path to end suffering:

Right understanding | embracing the Four Noble Truths

Right direction | aiming for a life of detachment from this world

Right speech | speaking truthfully, kindly, and gently

Right conduct | acting non-violently and compassionately

Right livelihood | finding a vocation fitting with Buddhist beliefs

Right effort | endeavouring to live a worthy and meritorious life

Right mindfulness | realising that all sensations are illusory

Right concentration | meditating to remove all distraction

This, in a nutshell, is Buddhism. Notice that God wasn’t mentioned? That’s because the Buddha was silent on the existence of God. In fact he was even silent on the origin of the universe. His goal was simply to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.

(Religion is still an accurate word to describe Buddhism. Most Buddhists today pray and take part in other rituals; one branch worships the Buddha as a god).

The Buddha and Jesus

In comparing Buddhism and Christianity, we must avoid two extremes. One is syncretism: combining these two faiths and ignoring what makes them unique and incompatible. The other is ostracism: rejecting the Buddha and his teachings completely.

There is a better way—a middle path, if you will. It involves caring enough about Buddhists to find points of contact between their beliefs and the gospel; taking down our walls and instead building bridges; asking how Buddhism can deepen our gratitude for the good news of Jesus.

“The Buddha’s goal was to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.”

First, the Buddha’s spiritual commitment is astounding, and it puts many of us Christians to shame. Am I seeking Jesus as passionately as the Buddha sought enlightenment? Am I as desperate to be free from sin as he was from suffering? Do I meditate on God’s Word—at all?

But let’s go a level deeper and explore Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. How does Jesus answer the Buddha’s deepest questions about life?

1. The Existence of Suffering. Suffering is part of our life in this world. Scripture says that Adam and Eve’s sin brought a curse on the world, and now all creation groans as we long to be released from sin and suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Left unchecked, our desires do lead to misery. In the words of James, they entice us, drag us away and lead to sin, which gives birth to death. The Bible even describes us as slaves to sin—caught in our own endless wheel of suffering.

“The Buddha’s spiritual commitment puts many of us Christians to shame.”

3. The End to Suffering. The gospel offers a remarkable solution. Not unlike the Buddha, Jesus stepped down from his heavenly palace to identify with a broken human race. But rather than seeking an escape from it, Jesus took our sin and suffering into himself at the cross. All who are enlightened to this, God welcomes into an eternal serenity where suffering is no more.

4. The Escape from Suffering. Jesus himself is the path to end suffering. He is the way, the truth and the life. Suffering will still touch us in this life, but as we follow him, his Spirit enables us to live detached from sin, and to act with truth, gentleness and compassion—and many other virtues the Buddha taught.

Not so that we can earn our escape from suffering, or finally reach enlightenment. But because we’ve already experienced this in Jesus, the truly enlightened one.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To receive new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

 

Sources

Cioccolanti, Steve. From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. Oxford, UK: Monarch, 2007.

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 99-108.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 47-84.

Secrets to a Thriving Young Adults Church

In high school I was shy and awkward. If you told me that one day I’d be discipling hundreds of young adults in one of Australia’s fastest-growing Baptist churches, I would have shaken my head in disbelief.

It turns out that God has a sense of humour. This has been my adventure for the last four years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I talk to other leaders who feel discouraged in young adults ministry. Youth still in high school flock to events that are run well. But after they graduate and get their license, keeping them in a faith community is like herding cats.

“All of these secrets are totally counter-intuitive.”

It’s a huge challenge for me too. Any of my “success” I credit to the goodness of God. But there are also a few things I’ve picked up along the way—secrets that I think help our young adults community thrive.

All of them are totally counter-intuitive. So brace yourself.

#1 Give up trying to do so much ministry

Like most pastors, I nearly burnt out in my first year. Then I discovered boundaries and learnt the word “no”. I also lifted my eyes and saw a church full of talented young people.

As I began asking their help to get things done, I realised something deeper. Young adults come alive when you look them in the eye, name their giftings, and throw them off the deep end with the words “I believe in you”.

“I lifted my eyes and saw a church full of talented young people.”

Some weeks now I don’t touch a microphone. Other people preach, lead worship, run life groups, and oversee complex ministries. Out of this fertile soil more grassroots ministries spring up—some that are thriving before I even hear about them.

I’m still deeply involved in the life of the community. And I preach often, because that’s my main gifting. But my role has shifted significantly to discipling leaders, and helping them do the same.

“As I’ve had the humility to step down, I’ve seen others step up.”

This is a win for everyone, because if I’m honest, I’m actually not that good at most other things. That’s what all the other people in the body of Christ are for.

Too often, pastors are put on a pedestal. It boosts our ego, but the pressure is deadly. As I’ve had the humility to step down, I’ve seen others step up. And I’ve realised that’s precisely how disciples are made.

#2 Get rid of your best quality people

Right now—and most of the time—some of our best young people are off completing discipleship schools with YWAM or serving on the mission fields of South-East Asia.

When they come back, more will go. Every month we farewell people who join our church plant, or decide to serve at a different church, or who go overseas with a ministry we’re not connected to.

“Long ago, I decided that my goal isn’t to retain young people.”

If this sounds stressful, it’s because you’re not thinking like a millennial. After thirteen years of routine, young people want freedom. We want adventure without a guaranteed outcome—even without the guarantee that we’ll return. And just watch: out of gratitude for that freedom, most will return anyway.

Even if they don’t come back, it’s not a loss. Long ago I decided that my goal isn’t to retain as many young people in church as possible. That will only leave me frustrated. It’s like herding cats, remember?

“Millennials are drawn to this kind of permission-giving community.”

Instead, for the six months or the two years or the decade they are with me, I will pour my heart into discipling them as well as I know how. Then, wherever they go, they’ll be a blessing to others, and a benefit to God’s kingdom. And I won’t feel deflated.

Millennials are drawn to this kind of permission-giving community. That’s why you can keep sending out your best with the confidence that more will come and replace them.

#3 Tell them how hard it is to follow Jesus

Social media is a mirage telling us the perfect life is always just up ahead. The modern world tries to turn this dream into reality and sell us lives that are easy and pain-free.

The church has tapped into this project, and for decades now we’ve tried a seeker-sensitive approach. We hope that if we lower the bar of discipleship enough, anyone will step over it.

“We want purpose. Give us something worth dying for.”

But if you actually talk to young people today, they don’t want a low bar. We want a challenge. We’ve grown up with easy, and it’s boring.

We’ve also grown up with enough pain and mess to realise that the perfect life is a lie. We don’t want perfect; we want purpose. Give us something worth dying for—then we might have something to live for.

“We’ve grown up with easy, and it’s boring.”

Jesus is the answer to this cry. He calls us to die to ourselves daily. To put others first. To take up our cross of suffering and follow him. To live for a cause bigger than ourselves, greater than our comfort, more transcendent than the politics of our age.

Preach that, and young adults will come from miles away.

If you found this helpful, please go back and hit share or leave a comment. If you’d like to receive my blogs by email, scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe.

For more ideas, check out More Secrets to a Thriving Young Adults Church.

Why We Love to Hate Ourselves on Anzac Day

This week we celebrate Anzac Day. For some, it’s a day of national pride. For others, it’s a chance to mourn our nation’s injustices. So which should it be?

And why is our civilisation so divided over this? For most majority-world nations, on days of remembrance there is no remorse or introspection, just gratitude and pageantry.

But in places like Australia, we’re severely bipolar on this issue. We’re looking in the mirror trying to work out if we’re heroes or villains.

We’re even asking if our civilisation is worth defending—or if we’ve completely lost our way.

“Truth be told, every nation is guilty of great injustices.”

Some say it’s because the story of the (Christian) West is one to be ashamed of. While I agree that we’ve got big sins to repent of, that actually misses the point.

North Korea have murdered millions of their own, but where is their public self-reflection? Tell me the last time a leader in the Middle East apologised for evil committed under their watch.

Truth be told, every nation is guilty of great injustices. Oddly, only western nations seem sorry for it. What’s going on there?

Self-critique runs deep in western societies. And it’s a value that’s been profoundly shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

“Jesus has been sidelined, but his values still haunt us.”

Rewind all the way back to the Old Testament prophets, and see Isaiah, Daniel and Amos declaring love poems over the Jewish people—and in the same breath, threatening divine punishment if they don’t repent of their wickedness.

Or go back to the first century, and see Jesus embrace some people while rebuking others—not on the basis of race, gender or status, but their heart-posture towards God and other people.

See the early church struggle, not against their Roman oppressors, but against the sin in their own hearts.

“Self-critique runs deep in western societies.”

Since then, western civilisation is guilty of some horrific injustices—some that sadly continue today. What makes us unique though isn’t our guilt, but the voices in our society that can see it and name it for what it is.

We now live in a very post-Christian world. Jesus has been sidelined, but his values still haunt us. Our self-critique on Anzac Day is proof of this.

“We need introspection, but we also need Jesus.”

But this is where things get messy. When the teachings of Jesus are divorced from his grace, introspection turns to self-loathing.

On an personal level, it can get very dark, very quick. The West’s mental health crisis is testament to this.

On a political level, it leads to extreme polarisation. Conservatives use national holidays to beat people with their flag-waving pride. Progressives tweet their fake humility, apologising for the sins of conservatives.

“When the teachings of Jesus are divorced from his grace, introspection turns to self-loathing.”

We need introspection, but we also need Jesus. Jesus didn’t just call out our sin. He also died for it. He’s the ultimate Anzac, laying down his life defending his friends. Forgiving our evil and injustice; reconciling us back to God. That’s grace.

Only when Jesus’ teachings and his grace go together can we celebrate national holidays with the right balance of humility and thankfulness. Only then can our self-loathing (personal and political) be swallowed up in the love of God.

“Jesus is the ultimate Anzac, laying down his life defending his friends.”

I think our civilisation is still worth defending. Countless migrants fleeing repression across the seas to settle in the Great Southland seem to think so too.

So let’s celebrate Australia, and be grateful for the Diggers’ sacrifice. And then let’s use what they’ve given us to bless the world.

Surely that’s the way to follow Jesus in this moment, and get our civilisation back on track. Lest we forget what they fought and died for.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Understand Any Book of the Bible in Ten Seconds

Have you ever read the entire Bible?

It’s a big book. To read it from start to finish takes about three days without a break. With so much to comprehend, it’s little wonder that literally millions more books have been written to explain and apply it.

“To read the Bible from start to finish takes about three days without a break.”

But in an age saturated by information, it’s no surprise that the most helpful resources are also the simplest. I’ve long thought that a resource should exist that explains every book of the Bible at a glance.

I’ve never found one—so I created one. I trust you’ll find these simple outlines personally useful and great to share with those new to the Christian walk. (Download a printable PDF copy here).

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

I’m indebted to Charles R. Swindoll for many of the book structures, and to Jeffrey Kranz for his simple book summaries.

It’s Time for Revolution

500th anniversaries don’t come around too often. This week, though, is a big deal for western civilisation—or at least it should be. Today marks the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation.

October 31st, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, unleashing a revolution that transformed Europe and helped usher in the modern world.

“This week is a big deal for western civilisation.”

So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of this event. Personal freedoms, universal education, modern scienceglobal languages, the nation state, and even democracy itself owe a massive debt to the reformers—radical followers of Jesus.

To us this sounds odd because we’ve been told that religion and reason are in conflict; that the world can only progress as faith retreats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s world is dizzyingly advanced. But as I’ve recently written, our Judeo-Christian heritage is being quickly abandoned, and rushing into the vacuum are anxieties, terrorism, widening inequality, slavery on a scale never seen in history, and alarming social polarisation.

“So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of the Reformation.”

It was also into a bleak situation (the Dark Ages no less) that the reformers spoke. Post tenebras lux—“After darkness, light”—was their rallying cry.

Three convictions drove them. These convictions turned their world upside down. I’m convinced they could do the same for ours. So what were they?

1. Sola Scriptura

In Luther’s day, a corrupt church was selling heaven’s forgiveness for cash. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was being bankrolled by gullible peasants.

Medieval superstition had devoured truth. God’s Word was hidden in monasteries, shrouded in tradition, and uttered only in Latin. The answer of the reformers was Sola Scriptura—back to the Word of God.

“It was into a bleak situation that the reformers spoke.”

“I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope,” said men like Tyndale. And true to their word, they translated the Bible into the languages of the people, reawakening the hearts and minds of a continent.

Today truth has been swallowed by relativism. Now, for example, we’re told that something can be true for you but not for me; that absolute truth doesn’t exist; and that we should question everything.

But why do so few stop to question this? Or to ask if such nonsense is absolutely true? It’s time we stood up and said relativism isn’t true for me even if the befuddled intelligentsia believe it.

“Today truth has been swallowed by relativism.”

Little wonder superstition has returned. Mysticism is in full flower once more in western nations. People are desperate for something real to anchor their lives to. And in this truth vacuum, too many are satisfied with the horoscopes of human speculation, and gimmick-spirituality imported for mass markets.

Today the Bible is more available than ever, but it’s out of fashion and soiled by centuries of slung mud. Still it speaks. God is there, and he is not silent. He has spoken, and his Word remains a sure foundation we can build our lives on.

2. The Priesthood of All Believers

The reformers also rediscovered the priesthood of all believers: we no longer need priests to stand between us and God, mediating forgiveness and blessing. Jesus has opened the way for each of us to be priests, to know God for ourselves and relate to him personally. And that is possible because every person is made in his image.

Today we enjoy individual liberty and human rights, and they arose from these distinctly Christian beliefs. Now everyone cries “equality!” But do they know where this idea came from? More to the point, do they actually mean it?

Many preach tolerance, but only tolerate views they agree with. They tell us don’t judge the morality of others, but condemn anyone too puritanical for their liking. They say that all ethnicities, genders and orientations are equal, but then divide and rank us by who feels the most offended and deserves the biggest megaphone. That’s not equality—and it’s sowing division, not unity.

“Individual liberty and human rights arose from distinctly Christian beliefs.”

Here’s the awkward truth: in our heads, we think of evolution as true and Genesis as a myth. So survival of the fittest must be largely to blame for the racial and gender inequality we have today.

But in our hearts we can’t accept that. No one admits it in polite company, but deep down we still want to believe Genesis and the reformers: that male and female were made equally in God’s image; that no tribe or nation is any less qualified as priests unto God.

If our hearts and heads remain divided as they are, the door stays open to manipulation. When it’s convenient, the culture-makers will preach equality. But when they don’t get their way, they’ll act like some people are more equal than others, and oppress anyone who dares dissent.

It’s time to clear away the dust. The dignity and equality of every person is truly true—but only if the reformers were right. Can we, unashamed, share their convictions once more? Or are we on our way back to tyranny?

3. Sola Fide

Luther’s greatest discovery, the core idea that drove his revolution, was Sola Fide—by faith alone. God’s approval doesn’t come to us through good deeds or religious observance. Jesus won our forgiveness and freedom at the cross. Now it’s a free gift for everyone who believes.

This is dangerous. Fear and control, which religious leaders relied on for millennia to coerce good behaviour, are now powerless. The individual conscience is subject to God alone, and now we must trust that good deeds flow from hearts of gratitude to him, not external threats of judgment.

“God’s approval doesn’t come through good deeds or religious observance.”

It’s also offensive. In every religious system, humans ascend to God through strict obedience, sage insights, or single-minded devotion, and so we get the glory. In the gospel, people contribute nothing. God descends to us, clothes himself in flesh, and achieves salvation on our behalf. We get the gift, but God alone gets the glory.

Finally, it’s liberating—the most liberating news in the world. No longer are we haunted by guilt, bound by addiction, or straining for perfection. God meets us in our weakness, and covers every failure with his grace and everlasting love.

Sola Scriptura, The Priesthood of All Believers, and Sola Fide could change the world once more.

The time has come for another revolution.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Are We Returning to the Dark Ages?

It’s almost an absurd question. Smartphones have put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Passenger jets fly us to the other side of the planet in a day. Soon AI will relieve us from all of life’s humdrum tasks.

But in just the space of a few decades, phenomena like slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks. Are these omens of a new Dark Age? Even as we accumulate the relics of a supermodern world, are the vision, values and humanity that brought us here fading to black?

“Slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks.”

History’s single greatest lesson is that we don’t learn from history—or in the words of another well-known maxim, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

So join me on a time-travelling adventure through the Middle Ages, and let’s see if anything looks familiar.

Passivity and Mysticism

In the medieval world, superstition was rife. Truth wasn’t discovered by the courageous common man; it was dispensed by the church and those wielding power.

Thanks to reformation and renaissance, we have universal literacy. But while generations past treasured this, today’s culture of whatever shrugs it off with apathy. Education systems soften us; university degrees are becoming commodified, mass produced, and shoddy.

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Beneath this decline in serious learning lay the crumbling ruins of a Judeo-Christian worldview. We could have restored their foundations, but instead we chose an experiment. Breeding modernism with mysticism, we’ve created a strange beast.

Now alternative everything has gone mainstream, all backed by its own “literature”. Truth can be validated by empiricism, politics or passion—depending on which tickles your fancy. The humanities have seen this for decades; now watch it rise in the sciences too.

Political correctness and its bizarre new morality pose as Pope for our brave new world. Too many are gullibly persuaded by this upstart authority; too few are willing to speak out for fear they’ll be branded with a phobia.

Widening Inequality

Happily, the modern world has set us free from the rule of princes and feudal lords. Each of us has a vote—and along with it, rights, liberties and opportunities never dreamt of by the peasants of a past age.

And while liberal democracy is by far the best system devised, its founding fathers handed it on to us with sobering words. America’s second president John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,”—and, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

“Today, one percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth.”

Could it be that we’re experiencing the “any other” he warned of? Consider the widening gap of inequality. A shrinking number of banks and businesses rule the global economy, paying little to no tax. One percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth. Many are now convinced that class mobility is just a dream.

When so much power is held by so few, and when political influence is up for sale to the highest bidder, our vision grows dull and it’s hard to tell businessman from kings, and feudalism from freedom.

Pessimism, Fear and Brutality

The Middle Ages have been called dark because they were a period of cultural and economic decline that eclipsed the glory of Rome. Europe’s idealism gave way to angst, fear of the outside world, and centuries of bloody crusades.

There are remarkable parallels today. Our technology might be advancing, but in other ways we’re going backwards. We’re obsessed with trivia, airbrushed porn, and the cult of celebrity. Popular tastes in music are vulgar. Even hipster nostalgia is growing kitsch.

“Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it.”

Crass arts pepper every age, but what passes as art today raises eyebrows for its grotesqueness as much as its creativity. If you don’t believe me, take a walk through a modern museum.

Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it. It’s us versus them, with ideological borders replacing the old geographical ones. Now the enemy shares our cul-de-sac, but we wouldn’t know it because we’ve never met. Online algorithms have created parallel left-and-right societies where we reinforce our own dogmas and hoist the drawbridge of our minds.

“We’ve enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free.”

If the last year is anything to go on, it’s a small step from social fragmentation to cruel violence and rioting in the streets. Maybe these crusades will end after another election. Or maybe they’re just the beginning.

It will all depend on our collective conscience: is it truly wrong to hurt our fellow man? We’ve been desensitised from years of terrorism on the nightly news and Hollywood’s glorified brutality. If that weren’t enough, we’ve murdered millions of the unborn, and enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free—all for cheap trinkets and virtual pleasure.

Tyranny Beckons

This is not what the pioneers of the free world dreamed of. They warned us that democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained by their own morals and manners. As these slip away, will we the people at last prefer tyranny to chaos?

Patrick Henry, another US founding father, said, “It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” I’m not ready for 1984 just yet. Our civilisation is fading like the dusk, but it’s still the freest on earth, and that makes it worth fighting for.

“Democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained.”

This month the western hemisphere celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—the social and spiritual revolution that jolted us out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world.

Call me dramatic, but I think it’s time we had another one.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

I Ate No Food for a Week: Here’s What I Learnt

The irony isn’t lost on me: Jesus said if we draw attention to ourselves when we fast, the attention we get will be our only reward.

But I’m convinced that as 21st century believers, Jesus’ principle of discreetness in Matthew 6 is almost all we think about when we think about fasting. That means almost no one talks about fasting, which means almost no one practices it anymore.

So maybe I’ve just lost my reward. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if I can stir some thoughts about the forgotten discipline of fasting, and help restore it to a place of normality in the Christian life.

Here are three really valuable lessons I learnt from my week of fasting.

1. Food competes with God for my affections

Food is a really good gift from God. But even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.

Over and over again this week I found myself thinking instinctively of food as the place to find comfort when my day had been hard or I’d faced a challenge. Apparently this is how I regularly think—but it took a week without food for me to notice.

“Even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.”

I experienced very few hunger pains and almost no drop in energy throughout the week.* The confronting conclusion this lead me to is that I don’t actually need food anywhere near as much as I think I do. Mostly, I just like it, and the comfort it brings.

And there’s nothing wrong with that—except when food is my first place of refuge. That’s a title that Jesus is jealous for. He wants to be the all-satisfying one for me.

Psalm 84:2 says, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” The constant companionship of an empty stomach taught me this truth like no amount of prayer, reading or meditation ever could.

*Being a working week, I chose to still drink some tea, coffee, juice and broth—so it was either this or an intervention from God that sustained me.

2. The spirit thrives when the flesh is subdued

By day three or four I had a clarity of mind that I’ve rarely experienced. The best way I can describe it is that my flesh began to diminish, giving way for my spirit to be more in control.

“Fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit.”

In certain conversations, I found myself with words of wisdom and insight that surprised me. When I prayed with others, my mind was sharp and my requests felt more impassioned than normal.

The single greatest takeaway of the week was how the self-control I was practicing with food transferred directly to other areas of my life. Temptations I normally struggle with were noticeably weakened. I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.

Our culture believes the myth that indulging every appetite—whether for entertainment or sex or food—is the way to true freedom and happiness. In reality, that path leads to slavery and addiction.

“I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.”

The self-control I discovered in fasting felt like the very opposite. I wasn’t playing slave to my desires. After all, true freedom is the ability to say no, not just yes.

I’ve come to believe that fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit so that we don’t gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

3. Fasting is a means, not an end

Given that I haven’t done it much before, this week I found myself becoming preoccupied with the physical aspects of fasting. In fact, towards the end of the week, I almost lost sight of why I began. If it has no greater purpose, not eating is a strange thing to do and has little value.

“Fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.”

I had to remind myself that biblical fasting isn’t a detox program, and it’s not some form of self-suffering or hunger strike. For all the purposes it has in Scripture—discipline, insight, answered prayer, spiritual breakthrough—its primary purpose is actually to draw near to God.

In a busy week, I found some time to do that. But next time I fast, I’ll be looking to leverage more value out of my fast: more time to be alone with God, to meet and pray with others, to read, and listen to teaching, and ponder. The reason I will is because fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.

The lessons I learnt this week have been invaluable, and I hope they’ve stirred something in you. If they have that’s good, because Jesus didn’t begin his teaching on fasting with the words, “If you fast…” but rather, “When you fast…”

He’s assuming we’ll be doing it again.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Equality

equality

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Equality.

* * *

Last year, two young women aged 15 and 23 were gang raped in a rural town and paraded naked through the main street. This was the “punishment” handed to them by an all-male, unelected village council. Their crime? Their brother eloped with a neighbouring girl who came from a higher caste than theirs.

Violence against women is a global epidemic, not just limited to India’s untouchables. The statistics are gut-wrenching.

One in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence. 98% of those trafficked for sex are female. Worldwide, 200 million women and girls are demographically “missing”—they’ve been murdered or have died through mistreatment, and their story has been lost.

“In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe.”

This is all part of a bigger picture of inequality. Across the globe, people are being abused and marginalised based purely on their culture, ethnicity, beliefs, political allegiance, gender or sexual expression. It’s enough to overwhelm us.

Aren’t we all for equality? Don’t we all stand for universal human rights?

The sobering, even shocking, answer to these questions is actually no.

In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe. We yearn for it, our civilisation sets the pace for it, and when we as westerners are treated unfairly, we appeal to equality as a fixed, universal axiom. But strange as this may sound, the idea that every human being has equal and inherent value is entirely foreign to many we share the planet with.

“If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering.”

The village justice described above is a case in point. While Ghandi fought for reform of the caste system, ancient Hindu beliefs don’t disappear overnight.

Much of Indian society is still built on the conviction that people have been created precisely unequal, and that your caste was determined by your actions in a previous life. Untouchables are so inferior to the other five castes, says Hindu tradition, that cows, monkeys and rats have greater dignity.

To us this is unthinkable, and must be challenged. But for many in Indian society, to challenge this or to dream otherwise is to rebel against karma. In fact, even to help the poor is to curse them further by preventing them from paying off their karmic debt.

“Inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history.”

Such inequality isn’t unique to India. The epicentre of child marriage, death penalties for homosexuals, and forced female genital mutilation is the Middle-East and North Africa—the heartland of Islam.

If your blood has started to boil, I trust that it’s because of the injustices I’ve described, not my geographical honesty. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Am I promoting inequality by making these observations? In fact I am—if we’re discussing the equality of worldviews. Let me be clear: not all beliefs are created equal.

But all people are created equal. And it is exactly this conviction that compels me. I must blow the whistle on any worldview that denies basic human equality and thereby fosters oppression.

The simple reality is that inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history. Mesopotamian creation myths held that the king was created in the image of the primary god, while the poor and the slaves were created in the image of an inferior god.

The ancient Greco-Roman world knew nothing of equality. Infanticide was commonplace. Plato had extremely elitist—even fascist—political views. Aristotle believed in natural slaves. In fact in the ancient world it was slaves that enabled the elite to pursue philosophy at all.

“If the world’s ‘races’ are descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal.”

Equality is a modern idea that came to us through the Renaissance. And while Renaissance writers are famous for quoting ancient Greeks and Romans, there was only one place they could go to establish a high view of humanity. And that place was Jesus.

From his parable of the ninety-nine sheep abandoned while one was searched for, to his teachings about the Creator knowing the number of hairs on our heads, to his charge for costly, practical love to “the least of these,” this peasant carpenter from Galilee stubbornly insisted that every life matters.

Jesus inspired his fanatic disciple Paul to write that “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male now female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To Paul, even a priest-class that’s closer to God must be a defunct concept if “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.”

“Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.”

If the world’s “races” are variously descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal. If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering. If truth is relative, then tomorrow some of us might wake up more equal than others.

But if God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe. In fact if God became one of us, far from violating his majesty (as Islam teaches) the incarnation would be the ultimate affirmation of our value and worth as humans.

The second sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this is not true. All people are created equal—yes! But this is not a self-evident truth, if we take historical and contemporary facts seriously. Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.

“If God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe.”

It came from Jesus. This conviction that each of us possess inherent worth, share equal value, and deserve unprejudiced treatment has birthed the human rights movement, shaped national constitutions, and utterly transformed Western ethics.

Long may it drive us to keep fighting for equality where it does not yet exist. God knows, around the world there is much still to be done. But may we never forget or disdain its origin. After all, there is no ground more level than at the foot of the cross.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Morality.

* * *

REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.